Walter D. Ray is associate professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and author of Tasting Heaven on Earth: Worship in Sixth-Century Constantinople.
In June 2011, Ray sent us this excellent post discussing the historical relationship between Eastern and Western Christians — and why a theological understanding of the rich heritage of worship in Eastern Christianity can be a source of renewal for all Christians.
Unfortunately, due to unforeseen editorial and design complications, his book was not released last summer as planned. Now, though — at long last — the interior is with the printer, the cover is one proofreading away from being finalized, and we expect this beautiful book to be in our warehouse in just a couple of weeks.
Read on for a reminder of why we’re so excited that this project is finally nearing its happy completion.
In the twentieth century, when Western Christians began to talk to one another in the hope of regaining their lost unity, they often turned to Christians from the East for fresh answers to problems that divided them. Having taken a different historical path, Eastern Christians often had different answers to troublesome questions and even different questions.
Tasting Heaven on Earth: Worship in Sixth-Century Constantinople, the second in a series of case studies in Christian worship, gives a snapshot of an Eastern Christian church and its worship near the beginning of its unique historical journey. By the sixth century the church of Constantinople had developed its own style of worship in its cathedral Church of Hagia Sophia and a distinctive theological synthesis, represented in this volume by Maximus the Confessor (580–662).
Though the final split between Constantinople and Rome formally dates to 1054, the separation began already in the fifth century with disputes over Christology and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The empire was politically reunited for a short time in the sixth century, but theologically East and West were set on different courses. With the creation of the Holy Roman Empire the center of development for western Christianity moved to northern Europe. Thereafter, the theological conversation in the West was between northern Europe and Rome; the East seemed increasingly irrelevant.
Among the Western theological developments the East missed during this period were the definition of original sin as hereditary guilt; the rise of tariff penance with its consequent notions of satisfaction for sin, purgatory and indulgences; and the medieval sacramental system with its seven sacraments and focus on the distribution of created grace. On the other side, the West never fully appreciated the East’s developments in Christology after the general Council of Chalcedon (451).
A significant cultural shift in the West was the different understanding of symbols the northern European tribes brought to their Christian faith. In Greco-Roman culture the symbol participated in the reality symbolized so that the reality was thought to be present in the symbol. In the new culture, the symbol took the place of an absent reality. It was in this atmosphere that questions were first raised about whether or not and how Christ was really present in the Eucharist. Disagreements about the answers to those questions continue to this day.
The earlier understanding of the symbol is central to the idea of theosis (deification), the Eastern Christian understanding of salvation as participation in divine life. Sharing in divine life comes by being the image of God. Maximus the Confessor put it this way: “The one who can do good and who does it is truly God by grace and participation because he has taken on in happy imitation the energy and characteristic of God’s own doing good.” Similarly, “the holy Church of God will be shown to be working for us the same effects as God,” by uniting its members to one another in Christ, “in the same way as the image reflects its archetype.”
Worship is at the heart of the Eastern Christian view of salvation. The Church is the symbol of humanity renewed in Christ and thus participates in the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven. The Church’s worship is the symbol of and participates in the heavenly worship of God, which itself participates in Christ’s love for the Father. In worship, Eastern Christians believe that they really “taste heaven on earth.”
I believe Eastern Christianity can still be a source of renewal for all Christians. Western readers of Tasting Heaven on Earth are invited to explore a way of being Christian that may be different from their own. Eastern Orthodox readers have the opportunity to measure their own experience of church against that of an early stage of their church’s history. All readers will be able to gain a deeper understanding of a Christian tradition that holds worship in heavenly regard.
Click to order Tasting Heaven on Earth: Worship in Sixth-Century Constantinople.
Walter Ray would welcome an opportunity to speak to your group about his work. He can be contacted through the Orthodox Speakers Bureau.